Brian Kelly has seen a Kirby Smart-coached defense before. Thus, he recognizes Georgia’s defensive scheme, reminiscent of the approach taken by a certain Alabama team.
“Certainly have a great deal of respect for Kirby Smart,” the Irish coach said Tuesday. “Certainly know him from his days at Alabama [where Smart was defensive coordinator] and we played them obviously in the national championship game.”
Mel Tucker is the Bulldogs defensive coordinator, having followed Smart from Alabama after the 2015 season when Smart took the Georgia head coaching job. Tucker was the defensive backs coach with the Tide for the 2015 season. Whichever one may be pulling the strings, Kelly sees Smart’s presence.
“Defensively, the thing that stands out there is certainly Kirby’s fingerprints,” he said. “Mel is running the defense, but you can see Kirby’s influence there, as well, which you would as a head coach.”
The Bulldogs typically feature three defensive linemen, but easily switch to four when the situation calls for it. Kelly said he counts as many as nine Georgia defensive linemen who contribute up front, led by junior tackle Trenton Thompson. With four veteran linebackers patrolling the area, as well, the front-seven will present a steep challenge for the Irish offensive line, no matter how veteran the latter unit may be.
“What it is about [Smart’s] defense is that when you have four linebackers, you’ve got guys running off edges,” Kelly said. “They can get to you off the edge as well as moving the front around. When you’re in three down [defensive linemen], you can easily play three down and four down from week to week. So there is that ability to morph to what you want to be from week to week, and that in itself allows him a lot of creativity.”
To counter that creativity, Notre Dame will look to improve its pass protection from a week ago. Kelly said that aspect of the game did not have “any glaring weaknesses,” but naturally needed improvement, namely in screen blocking and bootleg blocking.
“The physical pieces of offensive linemen in terms of their growth, we feel really good about that and they’re going to continue to get better,” he said. “There were things that happened on Saturday that we can control in coaching and teaching to take some of the hits off our quarterback.”
Offensively, the conversation may be about Bulldogs freshman quarterback Jake Fromm taking over for injured sophomore Jacob Eason, and understandably so, but Kelly’s focus remains on the Georgia running backs, seniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. If either gets past the first wave of Irish defenders, it will likely spell greater trouble.
“They’re difficult to tackle one-on-one at the second level,” Kelly said. “If you let these guys go through to the second level and you’re relying on your safeties one-on-one from 12 yards off to make tackles, they need to be of NFL pedigree to make those tackles consistently. And [even then] I don’t know that they will because these two kids are extraordinary talents.”
When it comes to Fromm, there may not be much film to study of him, having played only three quarters of collegiate football, but Kelly is somewhat familiar with the Georgia native, thanks to watching his high school film while evaluating recruits in years past. Notre Dame never pursued Fromm, having already zeroed in on its quarterback in the class of 2017 in current freshman Avery Davis, but Kelly was nonetheless impressed with Fromm back then.
“I always liked his presence and his savvy,” Kelly said. “He always just seemed to be somebody very comfortable. He reminds me a lot of a quarterback we have, [sophomore] Ian Book, on our team. Just has that ‘it’ as a quarterback.”
On scheduling & the SEC
Georgia marks the third SEC team Kelly has faced during his Notre Dame tenure, losing to Alabama in the 2012 National Championship Game and beating LSU in the 2014 Music City Bowl. The mixed results left Kelly knowing what is necessary for the Irish to beat the best of the SEC.
“You certainly know the talent level that you’re going up against, but you also know that it still comes down to your preparation and execution and that you’re capable of beating those teams,” he said. “Certainly we weren’t capable of beating Alabama that day, but we did against LSU. I think the takeaway is that your preparation and execution, you can beat with a Notre Dame football team anybody that you play.”
In the coming years, at least two more SEC teams are on the Irish schedule. Notre Dame and Arkansas have a home-and-home series slated for 2020 and 2025, and Texas A&M will travel to South Bend in 2025 a year after the Irish visit College Station.
“This is the great part of being an independent football team. You get these kinds of games, getting the chance to play against a team that is regarded as one of the very best in the SEC,” Kelly said.
“… Those conversations were about how do we best balance [scheduling] without it being too strong of a schedule to sustain itself throughout the entire year, and this game fit pretty good in that balance.”
54 & counting
Notre Dame played two dozen defenders for double digit snaps against Temple, and Kelly expects that rotation to continue. In fact, he can envision even more players finding the field than the 54 that did in the season opener. Particularly, more of an offensive rotation could be in the works. On at least one level, that is not possible, as the Irish trotted out all five of their tight ends against the Owls.
Of the players seeing their first significant action, Kelly specifically acknowledged five who performed well: junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, sophomore running back Tony Jones, freshman safety Isaiah Robertson and freshmen defensive tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish.
Injuries & eligibility update
The NCAA denied the appeal for immediate eligibility for sophomore safety and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman. He will be eligible for the 2018 season and will have three years remaining.
Junior defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway will practice Tuesday and is expected to play against Georgia after not dressing against Temple due to a knee sprain.
Graduate student tight end Durham Smythe will go through Tuesday’s practice in a non-contact role, and if that goes well, he should be cleared from the concussion protocol.